The holiday tradition that helps my family avoid gifting creep

Wrap it as fancy as you want.
Wrap it as fancy as you want.
Image: Reuters/Johannes Eisele
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At some point in the past decade, holiday gift buying for my adult family became a slog.

It felt silly to purchase something one of my sisters had expressly instructed me to get her, while furnishing her with similar instructions for a pair of earrings or a sweater I admired. Why not just skip the intermediary and all go shopping for ourselves? On the other hand, without guidance, I never seemed to buy quite the right thing. The whole thing often left me feeling I had failed the person I was trying to shower with love and affection.

For a time we all agreed to the stockings-only Christmas—that we would restrict ourselves to small items to go into Christmas stockings for one another. This worked for about a year, and then led to gifting creep, in which we ended up loading up those stockings with stuff none of us really wanted, while also feeling vaguely guilty that we hadn’t done enough for each other.

We solved all that with a game.

Maybe you know it as a “white elephant” or a “dirty santa” (ew) gift exchange. I live in New England, where thrift rules, so we call it the “Yankee swap.” Here are the rules: Everyone brings a wrapped gift. Everyone draws a number from a hat—if there are six participants, you randomly get a number from one to six. Number one gets to open any gift. Number two gets to open any gift, and then keep that gift or swap with number one. Number three gets to open any gift and then swap with number two or number one. And so on, until number one gets final pick of all the gifts. Some folks play with slightly different rules: You can only swap with the person who went just before you, for example. We’re quite permissive.

Last year we defined three categories—a book, a pair of socks, a delicious food item—and played in three rounds. The moment that I opened the pair of socks one sister had had custom-printed with my other sister’s face was one of the highlights of the year—I laughed until tears streamed down my face. There’s something about the game that encourages really goofy wild card gifts, and lasting moments of real joy. I will probably never wear those socks, but I do giggle every time I spot them in my drawer.

This year we’ve changed it up a little and will be exchanging socks, dish towels, and bars of soap. It feels a little austere when I write it, like something out of a wartime scene from Little Women, but I’m actually truly looking forward to it.  And not just the actual gift-giving; I get a lot of pleasure out of shopping for Yankee swap, too. The distinct categories make it a real mission to find distinctive items.

There’s so much pressure when you’re buying a gift for an individual. Buying a gift for the game though? Sheer fun.